Innovation Ecosystem

A lifetime on the front lines, reporting on toxic crime

A river of childhood lead poisoning runs through Rhode Island’s history of educational, economic, health, and criminal justice failures, steeped in racial injustice

Photo by Harvey Wasserman, from the files of Richard Asinof

At the Seabrook, H.H., occupation on May 1, 1977, as the arrests begin. From left, Paul Langner, The Boston Globe, Richard Asinof, The Valley Advocate, and John Kifner, The New York Times

By Richard Asinof
Posted 11/4/19
A deep dive into what the 2019 Childhood Lead Action Project community hero award being given to Richard Asinof, editor and publisher of ConvergenceRI, means.
Will the new state Education Commissioner address childhood lead poisoning as a leading cause disrupting outcomes for Rhode Island students? When will efforts to boost the innovation economy in Rhode Island include investments in healthy, affordable, safe housing? When will the state invest in studies to determine the extent of lead contamination in its drinking water? When will the academic medical enterprise in Rhode Island sponsor research connecting the long-term impacts of childhood lead poisoning to heart disease and diabetes? When will the Boston Globe, in terms of transparency, include an asterisk on every story reporting on the activities of the Wexford Innovation Complex, the Cambridge Innovation Center location in Providence, and the Venture Café Providence, sharing the fact that they are a paying tenant? When will Gov. Raimondo finally agree to sit down and do a one-on-one interview with ConvergenceRI?
As detailed in a recent column by Monica Hesse in The Washington Post, “What every member of Congress should know about vaginas,” Dr. Jen Gunter, a gynecologist, is planning to mail 535 copies of her book, “The Vagina Bible,” to every member of Congress. The goal is to fight folly and ignorance about women’s health with facts, providing a measured, pragmatic manual on how the female reproductive system works or doesn’t. As Hesse wrote, by mailing Gunter's book to all members of Congress, “it implicitly argues that officials in charge of policies should at leas understand what they are voting for.”
A similar opportunity exists around childhood lead poisoning, in this case, in Rhode Island, to provide the entire membership of the R.I. General Assembly with their very own copy of “What the Eyes Don’t See,” by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. As a kind of community organizing tactic, it would capture the attention of Rhode Island’s legislative leaders, who would not be able to be so stiff-necked about their own inability to read – or understand the facts around lead poisoning in Rhode Island.
The evidence of Rhode Island’s continued complicity in the ongoing crimes against the state’s children, robbing them of their future, is laid out on Page 76 of the 2019 Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook. While the total number of children under age six who were screened and identified as having elevated blood levels in 2018, 635, may seem like a small number to some, to put it in perspective, in the last three years, the number of people who died in drug overdoses were 336 in 2016, 324 in 2017, and 314 in 2018.

Here’s a suggestion: instead of making a campaign donation to legislative candidates running for the R.I. General Assembly, send them a copy of “What the Eyes Don’t See.”

PROVIDENCE – On Thursday evening, Nov. 14, I will stand next to Sen. Jack Reed and Maria Cristina Betancur to receive one of the 2019 Childhood Lead Action Project community hero awards for my journalism covering efforts to prevent and eliminate lead poisoning in children in Rhode Island.

It is the second time that I will be receiving the award, having first received it in 2013, an honor that has never been given out twice to the same recipient, according to Laura Brion, executive director of the Childhood Lead Action Project.

I am both honored and humbled. It is a great privilege to be recognized for your work, not once but twice, by an advocacy organization on the front lines of protecting children from a preventable affliction.

I am at an age when achieving recognition for my work takes on a different kind of significance, given that my body of work now spans five decades and more than a thousand in-depth stories.

The upcoming honor has made me grow reflective about the meaning of such awards, particularly after my recent complex surgery in September, the fusing of C3, C4, C5 and C6 in my neck, which resulted in a week’s stay in the hospital and two weeks at a skilled nursing facility in rehab [and some extra titanium]. Beyond a reminder of my own mortality, in a positive reframe, I have described it to friends and colleagues as the opportunity to go undercover on assignment to report on the realities of our health care delivery system.

The award from the Childhood Lead Action Project reinforces the value proposition of ConvergenceRI, the digital news platform I launched six years ago, covering the convergence of health, science, innovation, technology, research and community, breaking down the hardened silos in the news biz, seeking to create an engaged community of readers.

Call it a truth serum, a strong antidote, to the corporate consolidation and control of the new biz by private equity firms that now dominate our information highways.

Translated, the success of ConvergenceRI underscores the fact that there is great hunger for accurate, in-depth reporting and analysis in the Rhode Island market, unmet by other news outlets. Every week provides me with the opportunity to embark on a new adventure, to engage in a new conversation, to learn something new, even at 67. To stay forever young – and busy.

First, some history
If life was as simple – or as difficult – as turning a double play, my career might be expected to fit into tiny print on the back of a baseball card of numerous different news teams I have played on. But my writing career has never followed a straight, predictable path.

The last time I attempted to stitch together my résumé, I had a hard time squeezing it all onto four pages.

My current reporting on preventing childhood lead poisoning in Rhode Island is steeped in decades of knowledge and expertise garnered from my work as a reporter, editor, and investigative journalist, often focusing on environmental and racial justice.

I first wrote about childhood lead poisoning and its relationship to problems with diminished learning capacity in students in 1986, 33 years ago, in a story for The Hartford Advocate, following up a tip about how more than half the students in kindergarten classes in the Hartford, Conn., public schools, mostly children of color, were being held back and asked to repeat kindergarten, with the suspicion that their diminished learning capabilities were related to the high incidence of childhood lead poisoning. The state had studied the problem and had, in fact, found evidence that correlated the suspicions that elevated levels of lead in children’s blood was involved – but the state agency had been sitting on a report’s results for more than a year, until my questions apparently forced the release of the hidden study.

For more than a decade before the 1986 story, I had covered many big “environmental justice” stories, often giving voice to the perspective of the community advocates involved. My reporting included covering the emergence of the No Nukes movement in America in the 1970s, which proved to be one of the great success stories in American political history of how a nonviolent grassroots citizens’ movement took on and defeated the corporate and government behemoths behind the nuclear power industry. [It is a story that has yet to be included as part of the curriculum of American history textbooks being taught in our schools.]

I covered the occupation of Seabrook, N.H., nuclear power plant in May 1977, for The Valley Advocate [“Behind the lines at Seabrook”] and New Times Magazine [“Mahatma Gandhi goes to Seabrook”] where I was one of 1,414 arrested for trespassing. In my case, some nine hours after the arrests had begun, I was arrested by N.H. State Police Colonel Paul Doyon and put into the back of a National Guard truck [they had run out of school buses to transport prisoners to the armories], despite showing him my N.H. state press credentials.

If you check out the Wikipedia page on the Clamshell Alliance, my story, which was written 42 years ago, is cited. “Richard Asinof wrote: The overwhelming success of the Clamshell Alliance’s occupation can be attributed to three factors; the planning and leadership of the Clamshell Alliance itself; the strength of the affinity group and the spirit and discipline of the occupiers; and the strong impact that women in key leadership roles exerted on the events.”

In the digital world we inhabit, recognition is fleeting. That the validity of my reporting from a story written four decades ago survives is its own kind of community award, all by itself.

At the time of the 1977 Seabrook occupation, I lived in Montague Center, Mass., the home of the communal farm where Sam Lovejoy, Anna Gyorgy, Steve Diamond, Nina [Simon] Keller, Tony Matthews, Susan Kramer, Janice Frey, Harvey Wasserman and others in their merry band of rabble-rousers attempted to put nuclear power on trial in order to defeat the planned twin nuclear power station to be built on the Montague Plains. The Montague nukes were never built, falling victim to a legal intervention that successfully challenged the economic need for the plant. [Yeah, I covered that, too.]

For me, one of the most memorable events of that 1977 Seabrook occupation occurred from the campground in the woods surrounding the construction site, known as North Friendly, when the news media covering the occupation was asked to identify themselves to the affinity groups about to stage the occupation. When I introduced myself as managing editor of The Valley Advocate, sandwiched between a reporter from Time magazine and a reporter from The Boston Globe, I was awarded a spontaneous, standing ovation by a community of readers who depended upon the newspaper to tell the truth about the dangers of nuclear power.

My story about the battle to halt the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in San Luis Obispo, California, became the front-page story in The Village Voice in April of 1979, two weeks after the accident at Three Mile Island. The iconic headline was: “Quake ‘n’ Bake,” because the nuclear power station had been built in close proximity to an active earthquake fault. The story had been originally assigned by The New York Times Magazine, but had been killed, resurrected, and then killed again, the last time allegedly on orders by Abe Rosenthal.

Many of the questions about the Diablo Canyon power plant, including by three General Electric engineers who had spoken out publicly about their fears of what would happen if there were an earthquake, actually came true at Fukushima in Japan in 2011, where the continued shaking and aftershocks disrupted the nuclear power plants infrastructure, leading to a series of meltdowns.

My story about the mercury poisoning of the Cree living in northwestern Quebec was published by The New York Times in October of 1979, “The Poisoning of the Indian Waters,” two years after it had first been written and sold to the magazine in the fall of 1977.

Much of the mercury pollution had come from a chlor-alkali manufacturing plant that produced the caustic chemicals used to bleach wood pulp, owned by Domtar. The plant, built in 1967, used 20,000 tons of mercury as a constantly flowing cathode, circulating through 800,000 gallons of brine each day. The plant closed its operations on May 15, 1978, 11 years later, but not before tons of mercury had been dispersed throughout northwestern Quebec, bio-accumulating in the fish that the Cree ate, disrupting the native culture. [See link to The New York Times Magazine story below.]

To be a competent reporter covering toxic crime, you had to be able to take deep dives into the science behind the human tragedies.

In 1984, following the release of a toxic cloud at a pesticide manufacturing plant in Bhopal, India, [which has been alleged to have caused the death of more than 10,000 people in its aftermath], I wrote an op-ed for The Los Angeles Times, “We have toxic tragedies of our own.” I was then an editor of Environmental Action Magazine, a national monthly in Washington, D.C.

I also appeared on ABC’s “Nightline,” describing the poisoning as a “tragedy and a travesty, one that demands that we raise serious questions about corporate responsibility.” Call it one of my several 90 seconds of fame.

In the op-ed, I had quoted Ira Reiner, the former Los Angeles City Attorney who had directed a special strike force to crack down on illegal toxic dumping, which I had used in a story from earlier that year for Environmental Action, “Throwing the book at toxic crooks.” Reiner had said: “Corporate executives [responsible for illegal dumping] must be made to pay the price. They need to hear the slam of the jail door behind them.”

In 1987, when I served as editor and publisher of five weekly newspapers in Vermont, including The Manchester Journal in Manchester, Vermont, I penned an op-ed for The New York Times in which I posed the question, “Is Vermont third world?” because of the state’s willingness to accept international financing to underwrite a municipal incinerator in Rutland, whose waste ash was to be dumped in a landfill on the banks of the Battenkill River – considered to be one of the prized trout streams in America.

The next year, The Manchester Journal published a comprehensive series about AIDS in Vermont, the first series of its kind, which resulted in the newspaper winning the prestigious Mavis Doyle Award, the first time a weekly newspaper had ever been awarded that prize.

All of that is past history, history that is of no particular import to most folks, the retelling of which could be seen as a kind of self-indulgence, boring stories of glory days, as Bruce Springsteen once sang.

Except for an important thread: my resolve not to be distracted into covering the next bright, shiny corporate object thrown the news media’s way as being relevant, to be willing to stand up and ask the impertinent question to some powerful folks, and the refusal to serve as a corporate mouthpiece. The bottom line: you have to draw the line somewhere, to make choices.

Bright shiny objects and distractions
The Childhood Lead Action Project event, “Strike Out Lead Poisoning,” to be held in Pawtucket on Thursday evening, Nov. 14, at the Hope Artiste Village, will have some big competition that same evening for media attention. The Boston Globe is hosting a panel discussion at the Cambridge Innovation Center at the Wexford Innovation Complex [where the Globe is a paying tenant] about charting the future of Rhode Island, featuring three of the state’s top poobahs – Gov. Gina Raimondo, Lifespan President and CEO Dr. Timothy Babineau, and Brown University President Christina Paxson – attempt to answer the questions: “How does the state we love recruit and retain the talent needed to maintain a robust economic engine? How do we position ourselves as a world-class place that people want to come and stay?”

Translated, few if any of the “media glitterati” of Rhode Island will be attending the community-driven event in Pawtucket.

The news media always tend to flock to such song-and-dance performances, happy to join in the chorus line celebrating and preserving the myth of the “great” leaders creating history, ignoring the good work being done by community advocates. My expectation is that there will be few TV cameras or radio microphones that make the journey to Pawtucket that evening. It is their loss, really. The two competing events capture the widening gap between bottom-up and top-down innovation.

It may seem like a bit of a stretch to some, but the disliked fact is that Raimondo, Babineau and Paxson [and The Boston Globe, for that matter], cannot begin to tackle how they will shape the future of Rhode Island until they own up and admit to their own dismal failures in addressing childhood lead poisoning and the ways that it has disrupted the state’s future – in housing, in education, in health care, in future workforce development, and in crime and violence, tainted with a distinct hue of racial injustice.

A river of lead poisoning runs through it
On Nov. 1, the state formally took control of the Providence Public School District, under the direction of the new state Education Commissioner, Angelica Infante-Green. But the “turn-around” game plan for the Providence schools remains to be written, the “turn-around” superintendent has not yet been hired, and the metrics to evaluate the success of the state’s takeover remain completely unknown. Can you spell accountability?

Much attention has been focused on the poor performance of students on standardized tests, the high incidence of chronic absenteeism by students and teachers, and the unruliness of student behavior in the schools. But the root causes of many of these problems, in particular, the devastating lifetime impacts of childhood lead poisoning, a symptom of poor, unsafe housing conditions, have never become part of the conversation. Why is that? Why has Commissioner Infante-Green never mentioned “childhood lead poisoning” in any of her frequent talks?

Childhood lead poisoning and its consequences in educational performance in Providence schools has yet to make it into the reporting of WPRI’s Ted Nesi, Steph Machado, Eli Sherman or Tim White [even though it is one of the longest-running crime stories in Rhode Island]. It has not been translated into a political story talked about by Ian Donnis or Scott MacKay as part of their weekly punditry on The People’s Radio. It has not become part of the weekly discussions on “In The Arena” on ABC-6 or “A Lively Experiment” on RI PBS. Why?

To exclude childhood lead poisoning from the political realm is inherently a political decision. The toxic crimes continue, the children continue to suffer, and the news media in Rhode Island remain as tame as a well-kept courtesan.

It is not because the evidence doesn’t exist or is not easily accessible. Research studies conducted by Brown University Professor Anna Aizer, a labor and health economist, who currently serves as chair of the Brown Economics department, has detailed how the damages caused by elevated levels of lead in children in Rhode Island have disrupted the future.

“Any lead level in excess of zero is problematic,” Aizer said, in a 2019 PBS retrospective story. “When you link children’s disciplinary infractions and test scores with their own blood lead levels, you see a very clear relationship. Children with elevated lead levels are 20 percent more likely to have been suspended from school; they show aggression, difficulty with impulse control and their test scores suffer.” [See link below to the PBS video, “Lingering Peril from Lead Paint.”]

The costs of removing the presence of lead, particularly from lead paint in older buildings, are dwarfed by the costs caused by lead poisoning in children that persist over a lifetime, according to Aizer. “We’re paying for special education, we’re paying for school resource officers, we are paying the juvenile courts. We are going to see the manifestation of that in crime, in education attainment, in employment earnings later in life, unless we take steps to reduce those numbers.”

The connection between the lack of safe, affordable housing, poor housing stock, the abundance of older housing laden with lead paint, and neighborhoods with concentrated poverty, with 25 percent or more of the residents living under the poverty, and educational outcomes couldn’t be clearer, unless, of course, you don’t want to talk about it. Ask yourself this: Why is there such a high concentration of special education students in Providence public schools?

The more you know, the worse things get. Gov. Raimondo has busily been promoting efforts to improve third-grade reading level scores on standardized tests in Rhode Island, a worthy goal, but one that will remain out of reach unless the state moves to eliminate the preventable scourge of childhood lead poisoning. One of the co-authors of the initial research study by Aizer, Dr. Peter Simon, sent her a copy of the study three years ago in 2016. He has never gotten a reply. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Drawing a line in the sand.”]

[Of course, I have been patiently waiting for the Governor to agree to a one-on-one interview with ConvergenceRI for more than five years, despite her twice agreeing to do such an interview and shaking my hand to confirm it. I am not holding my breath.]

Much has been made of the poor performance of students in Central Falls on standardized tests, for instance. At a recent news conference, at which Sen. Jack Reed announced $8.4 million in federal funds to address problems with housing with lead paint, Central Falls Mayor James Diossa provided some numbers that Commissioner Infante-Green should be paying attention to.

The current rate of children testing positive for elevated levels of lead in their blood was at 11 percent in Central Falls, double the state’s average, which translates to at least two students entering every this year’s kindergarten classes in the city having been diagnosed with childhood lead poisoning, according to Diossa. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Sen. Reed delivers, the mayors step up to the plate.”]

The truth and consequences in the relationship between housing and health was documented in the recent release of the inaugural Rhode Island Life Index, a survey conducted by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Rhode Island in partnership with the School of Public Health at Brown University [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Taking the pulse of Rhode Island life.”]

The release of the HousingWorks RI 2019 Housing Fact Book that same week emphasized that the fact that “one’s zip code can be more predictive of person’s life outcomes than their genetic code.”

Childhood lead poisoning is an ongoing crime story against Rhode Island’s children, whose impacts will last a lifetime of poor health, education, and economic outcomes. With lead poisoning, the life-long impacts will follow you, regardless of your zip code.

Health consequences
No one disputes the fact that heart disease remains the number-one killer of both men and women in America. Enormous amounts of money are spent on cardiovascular care, treating the symptoms, including high blood pressure.

To prevent the consequences of heart disease, evidence suggests that reducing and eliminating exposure to low levels of lead poisoning may prove to be the best prevention.

As ConvergenceRI reported in 2018: “No one disputes that heart disease is still the number one killer of men and women, the underlying cause of death for some 800,000 Americans each year, accounting for a third of all deaths in the U.S., according to the American Heart Association.

“In turn, the health insurance industry and the health care delivery system spend hundreds of billions a year in treatment for coronary heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure.

“The annual cost of treating heart disease in the U.S. is estimated to be approximately $300 billion a year. Heart attacks [$11.5 billion] and coronary heart disease [$10.4 billion] were two of the 10 most expensive hospital discharge diagnoses a year, according to American Heart Association statistics, using 2013 data. 

“The usual suspects in the risk factors attributed to the high incidence of heart disease are: smoking, physical inactivity, nutrition, obesity, cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes, with clinical treatments targeting care interventions around reducing these risk factors.

“But a startling new study published on March 12, [2018,] by The Lancet, “Low level lead exposure and mortality in U.S. adults: a population based cohort study,” found that approximately 412,000 deaths a year in the U.S. from heart disease could be attributable to low level lead exposure.

“The principal author of the study, Dr. Bruce Lanphear, professor of Health Science at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, believes that low-level lead exposure is an important but largely overlooked key risk factor for heart disease mortality for adults in the U.S.

“Translated, adults – and not just children – are life-long victims of low levels of lead poisoning, leading to their death from heart disease.

“More importantly, based on the results of the study, Lanphear believes that a comprehensive strategy to prevent deaths from heart disease should include efforts to reduce lead exposure.”
[See link below to the ConvergenceRI story, “The Pb Funk.”]

In the story, “The Pb funk,” I also detailed the failure by the R.I. House of Representatives to hold a single meeting over two years for a legislative study commission, enacted in both 2016 and 2017, to examine lead contamination of Rhode Island’s drinking water. Why?

Once again, not to convene a meeting – and not to report on that political failure – is a story that the rest of the news media in Rhode Island ignored. Why does the news media in Rhode Island continue to turn a blind eye?

To tell the truth
I never became the lawyer that my parents encouraged me to become, warning me that writing was an avocation, not a vocation. I resisted their efforts to convince me to go to business school, and the advice a consultant gave me that I could find an exciting career as a communications professional working for Exxon.

More than three decades later after my 1986 story for The Hartford Advocate, I am still writing about the crimes of childhood lead poisoning. “Call it a crime story that is still unfolding, in Flint, Mich., in numerous cities across America, and here in Rhode Island,” I wrote in April of this year, when Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who blew the whistle on lead poisoning in Flint, Mich., spoke in Rhode Island. “Children are being robbed of their future in broad daylight, in their homes and neighborhoods.” [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “How to stop making children the detectors of toxic hazards.”]

I continued: “There is no safe level of lead in children, scientists and doctors agree. Lead is an irreversible neurotoxin; lead poisoning is a preventable childhood disease. Even at very low levels, lead exposure in children can cause irreversible damage, including slowed growth and development, learning disabilities, behavioral problems and neurological damages.”

It is ironic that Rhode Island, which has some of the most progressive laws in the nation mandating testing for childhood lead poisoning and requiring remediation of lead-contaminated properties, whose Congressional delegation continues to provide federal resources to clean up lead paint-laden housing, most recently shepherding $12.4 million to Woonsocket, Pawtucket and Central Falls, still struggles to do the right thing.

“If tuberculosis was the disease of the Industrial Age, and cancer the disease of the Post-Industrial Age, then obesity and Type 2 diabetes have emerged as the epidemic of our 21st century world.”

I wrote that following an interview in 2015 with Simin Liu, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at Brown University. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Unlocking the genetic links for Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.]

The data underscores the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes. As I reported: “In the United States, in 2012, there were estimated to be about 29 million people with diabetes. In adults 20 and older, more than one in every 10 people had diabetes; in seniors 65 and older, the number rose to one in four.”

“I would argue that diabetes is the key epidemic of our time, especially if you look at it from a global perspective,” Liu said in the interview with ConvergenceRI. “About 70 to 80 percent of the people who have diabetes ultimately die from heart disease, and they have a greater [likelihood to develop] a number of cancers.” According to Liu, in China, there are now some 100 million people who have Type 2 diabetes.

Liu’s work has been focused on identifying the genetic markers for Type 2 Diabetes and heart disease.

Underneath Liu’s research are biggest questions about the role of chemical endocrine disruptors in precipitating diabetes – from glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, to PFAs and PFOAs, called the “forever plastics” because of their persistence in the environment, which has been linked by research to childhood obesity.

To which, I would add lead.

But no one needs to wait for the latest scientific research to take action against lead. The evidence is overwhelming, the existing research is convincing, the recipe for what action to take in corrective action, as championed by groups such as the Childhood Lead Action Project, straightforward.

All that is lacking is the political will.

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